Ph.D., University of Rochester

Claire McCarthy: You have to be persistent and stay positive!

Interviewed by Nowreen Priyanka

Editor’s note: Thanks Claire for sharing your story about the experiences as a doctoral student at the University of Rochester. The University of Rochester is a private research university in Rochester, New York.

Claire McCarthy

Claire McCarthy

Ph.D. Student

Department of Environmental Medicine, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

I am a 6th year student in the Toxicology Ph.D. Program.

I specifically joined the Toxicology Program for many reasons. I was interested in understanding how environmental chemicals impact health. I also liked that the Toxicology students were a close group.

A little bit about me

I am originally from Cincinnati, Ohio. I received a B.A. in Biochemistry from Hiram College in 2011 and started in the Toxicology graduate program at the University of Rochester a few months later. I joined the laboratory of Dr. Patricia Sime for my thesis work investigating how exposure to biomass smoke from household fires causes inflammatory lung diseases and respiratory infections. In the 2013-2014 academic year, I passed my qualifying exam and received a Master’s degree in Toxicology. I am currently trying to finish my experiments and plan to defend in the spring. I can be found on Twitter @cemccarthy02 and recently started a blog (clairemcomms.blogspot.com) where I plan to discuss things that relate to science and society.

Why I chose Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

The summer before my senior year of college, I had the opportunity to do a research internship at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. This experience allowed me to learn about toxicology, the social environment of the labs, and fun things to do in Rochester. It also helped me get to know faculty members and graduate students at this university. I saw that it was a collaborative place, where students and researchers from different labs often work together. When I returned to Rochester for my graduate school interview in February, I just felt really comfortable. People that I met in the summer welcomed me back, which made me less nervous. At the end of the interview weekend, I had the gut feeling that this was the graduate school for me.

I specifically joined the Toxicology Program for many reasons. I was interested in understanding how environmental chemicals impact health. I also liked that the Toxicology students were a close group. Everyone seemed to get along and older students helped younger students (by sharing textbooks, old notes, etc., giving advice about rotations, qualifying exam prep, and more). Additionally, the University of Rochester’s Toxicology Program is one of the top 5 Toxicology graduate programs in the U.S. and supports its students with a training grant.

My research area and its importance

Biomass fuels, including animal dung, are used by more than 3 billion people for cooking and heating their homes. However, the household generation of biomass smoke is the leading environmental risk factor for mortality and causes over 4 million deaths each year. Biomass smoke inhalation is epidemiologically associated with human lung diseases, such as respiratory infections and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Yet, there is surprisingly little direct experimental data examining mechanisms of biomass smoke-induced effects on the respiratory system.

For my thesis research, I am investigating the impact of dung biomass smoke exposure on the biology of the lung. I am currently performing experiments with primary human lung cells and animal models to examine how biomass smoke causes inflammatory responses and impairs immunity against respiratory pathogens. The long-term objective of this project is to understand the toxicological effects of biomass smoke exposure and to translate the findings to the reduction of biomass smoke-related pulmonary diseases.

The thing I like most is the camaraderie with other graduate students. We try to help each other and often work together. We give each other advice and support, and motivate one another when experiments aren’t working.

Funding and/or scholarships as a Graduate Student

I am a domestic student. As a Toxicology Ph.D. student at the University of Rochester, I receive a stipend of ~$ 26,650 (2014-2015) per year and healthcare coverage. The stipend is enough for me to live comfortably and pay my bills. I can even treat myself every once in a while with a shopping trip, movies, pedicures, etc. During my 2nd through 4th years of graduate school, I was supported by an NIH T32 Training Grant. Currently, I am paid through my research advisor’s funding.

Availability of teaching or research assistantship within the Department

The Department of Environmental Medicine does not offer specific teaching or research assistantships to individual students. However, the department has an NIH T32 Training Grant that supports the Toxicology Ph.D. students. Additionally, a few students are able to work as teaching assistants for the Toxicology courses, specifically Biochemical Toxicology and Organ Systems Toxicology. I enjoyed being a T.A. since it allowed me to connect with faculty in the department and younger Toxicology students. Further, I have heard that in the very near future all graduate students at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry will be required to T.A. for a semester.

What I like most about being here

The thing I like most is the camaraderie with other graduate students. We try to help each other and often work together. We give each other advice and support and motivate one another when experiments aren’t working. The one thing I don’t like about the University of Rochester is the winter weather, which is long, cold, and snowy.

My background as an undergraduate student

As an undergraduate, I studied Biochemistry at Hiram College. I received my B.A. in May of 2011 and started graduate school a few months later. Transitioning from a senior in undergrad to a first-year graduate student was harder than I thought. Graduate school classes are more difficult, and you cover a lot more material in a shorter amount of time. For me, there was this confusing juxtaposition of both reverting from a knowledgeable senior to a shy, inexperienced first year while simultaneously maturing from dorm life to an independent person with my own apartment. That first year was probably the toughest, but graduate school got easier as I made new friends and acclimated to Rochester.

Finding a supervisor and settling

I did not find it difficult to find a supervisor. In the first year, all Toxicology students at the University of Rochester do 3-4 lab rotations and ask to join one of these laboratories for their thesis work. Additionally, the first-year Tox students attend a 1 credit course called “Intro to Faculty Research,” where researchers in Environmental Medicine introduce themselves and their current research projects to the new students. Generally, faculty looking for students to join their labs will give a presentation in this class. I actually chose to rotate in Dr. Patricia Sime’s laboratory after she gave a talk for this class. Her research focuses on understanding inflammatory lung diseases and respiratory infections related to tobacco and biomass smoke, investigating the pathogenesis of pulmonary fibrosis (or scarring), and developing novel therapies to treat lung diseases.

 

It is important to find extra-curricular activities that you enjoy outside of your research.

Life as a graduate student

It is definitely hard being a graduate student. There were moments when I questioned if I made the right decision to enter the Tox Ph.D. program and times when I wanted to quit. However, I kept these thoughts to myself and pushed through the discouraging times (like the qualifying exam, failed experiments, long days gathering data for a grant, etc.). For this reason, it is important to find extra-curricular activities that you enjoy outside of your research.

I like helping out at fundraisers and writing, so I volunteer and participate in science communication groups (through the URBEST program and American Thoracic Society). I also participate in Toxicology student groups, such as the Bocce team, and organize monthly student community-building activities (ranging from a pedal tour to picking up trash at a county park).

How I became interested in this field

Looking back, I think that I first became interested in studying the effects of environmental pollutants on human health and the field of Toxicology in high school. I took a 2-week intensive course (known as an intersession) called Erdkinder where I went and lived on a farm. This class included readings from “Fast Food Nation: The Darkside of the All-American Meal,” and discussions about industrial food preparation, organic farming, and obesity. This experience made me want to learn more about the interaction between the environment and health.

My interest in toxicology continued to grow during my undergraduate years. My freshman colloquium (reading and writing) course, “All Flesh is Grass,” focused on examining the relationship between plants and people. During the course, I read “The Botany of Desire,” which discussed genetically modified foods, learned about poisonous plants, etc., which furthered my curiosity about the interplay between humans, the environment, and biology. In a Biomedical Humanities course, we read the story, “Luis,” by Richard Selzer. Spoiler Alert! It is about a trash scavenger who finds what he thinks is a piece of a star. However, it is radioactive material from an improperly disposed X-ray machine. Exposure to the cesium gives him radiation sickness and causes him to die. After reading the tale, I wanted to find a career where I could prevent this type of situation from happening.

Additionally, my undergraduate mentors at Hiram College, including Jody Modarelli, Carol Shreiner, Matt Hils, Michelle Nario-Redmond, and Erin Lamb, helped me on my journey to Toxicology. They fostered my interest in science, taught me important skills for my graduate studies, and encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. There are no words to express how grateful I am to all of these professors who supported me.

My advice for students who wants to enter this field

You have to be persistent and stay positive!

Standardized tests I had to take

I had to take the GRE to apply to the University of Rochester Toxicology Ph.D. Program. For full disclosure, I took the test twice. Based on my own experience, I recommend taking the GRE early so that if you aren’t happy with the score, you have time to re-take it.

Advice for new students new to this department

My advice is “talk to Chris Gramza (the Coordinator of the Toxicology Program)!” She helps all of the Tox students with academic and administrative work, as well as acts as a counselor for us. She knows about the program, the medical center, events going on in the city, and more. I also recommend that they reach out to older graduate students, including but not limited to his/her assigned Toxicology Peer Mentor. Also, I think it is also important to get to know the administrative staff, which does a lot of (behind-the-scenes) work to assist graduate students. Always thank them for their help with filing important paperwork.

What I do in my free time

I enjoy hanging out with friends, checking out local events and festivals, playing Bocce, going to the beach or pool (in the summer), reading novels, testing new baking recipes, watching movies, and working out (a.k.a. Zumba, PiYo, and Strength classes at Bounce Aerobics) in my free time. Graduate school is hard, so it is important to have activities to help you relax and recharge.

Books That Have Inspired Me:

Cider House Rules – a story about an orphan who grows up, leaves home, and eventually becomes a doctor; it includes issues of medical ethics

Cooked – I like Michael Pollen’s books, which discuss the relationship between people and their food

Cutting for Stone – a novel about twins and family, medicine, and exploration

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – an important story for scientists (especially those who perform cell culture experiments and/or use clinical samples for their research)

Interpreter of Maladies – Pulitzer-winning book about traditional cultures and the modern world, immigration, communication, and more

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World – a book about Dr. Paul Farmer, who addresses healthcare disparities and works to treat infectious diseases throughout the world (especially in low-income areas)

My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story – Dr. Abraham Verghese writes about his experience as a young, infectious disease doctor in Tennessee, who becomes the local expert on AIDS.

Oryx and Crake – a post-apocolyptic novel that makes the reader think about the ethics of bioengineering, the impact of businesses and money on science, the role of the media in social perception, etc.

Silent Spring – a great book for Toxicologists; I read this book after hearing about it in my Toxicology courses

Song of Solomon – a great coming-of-age story that discusses the power of the past, racism, freedom, and more

In May of 2015 I won the William F. Neuman and Margaret W. Neuman Award from the Dept. of Environmental Medicine. This award is for academic achievement and citizenship.

A Memorable Achievement

In May of 2015, I won the William F. Neuman and Margaret W. Neuman Award from the Dept. of Environmental Medicine. This award is for academic achievement and citizenship. Dr. W. Neuman and Dr. M. Neuman believed that scientists should contribute to their department, university, and society. That same night, I also received a fun, student award of high heels from my peers for helping them prepare for their qualifying exams. I think these types of awards show the importance of being socially active and helping others while you are in graduate school.

 Graduate School Publications:

 Olsen, K.C., Epa, A.P., Kulkarni, A.A., Kottmann, R.M., McCarthy, C.E., Johnson, G.V., Thatcher, T.H., Phipps, R.P., and Sime, P.J. Inhibition of transglutaminase 2, a novel target for pulmonary fibrosis, by two small electrophilic molecules. Am J Respir Cell Mol Biol. 2014, 50(4): 737-747. 

Thatcher, T.H., Williams, M.A., Pollock, S.J., McCarthy, C.E., Lacy, S.H., Phipps, R.P., and Sime, P.J. Endogenous ligands of the aryl hydrocarbon receptor regulate lung dendritic cell function. Immunology. 2016, 147(1): 41-54. McCarthy, C.E., Duffney, P.F., Gelein, R., Thatcher, T.H.., Elder, A., Phipps, R.P., and Sime, P.J. Dung biomass smoke activates inflammatory signaling pathways in h

McCarthy, C.E., Duffney, P.F., Gelein, R., Thatcher, T.H.., Elder, A., Phipps, R.P., and Sime, P.J. Dung biomass smoke activates inflammatory signaling pathways in human small airway epithelial cells. Am J Physiol Lung Cell Mol Physiol. 2016, manuscript submitted.

Teaching and Tutoring

  • 2014 – Teaching Assistant for Biochemical Toxicology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry
  • 2014 – Member of a graduate and medical student volunteer group that tutored K-12 grade students
  • 2014 – Peer Mentor for a 1st-year Toxicology student
  • 2015 – Tutor for a 1st-year graduate student in Cell Biology

A Few Additional Activities:

  • 2014 – Participated in a science communication workshop given by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science
  • 2015 – Member of the Environmental, Occupational, and Population Health
  • 2016 – Member of the Communications Team of the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry
  • 2016 – Gave a talk about the Toxic Substances Control Act Reform Bills to the Advocacy Group of the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester

Volunteer Work:

  • Assisted with the Annual Greg Chandler and Guy F. Solimano Memorial Golf Tournament that raises money for the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation
  • Escorted families through the Physical Assessment of Free Physicals for Youth at the University of Rochester Medical Center
  • Helped out at local walks/runs that supported the American Lung Association, American Heart Association, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Pulmonary Hypertension Association
  • Assisted with registration at the “High School Student and Teacher Workshop” and was a mentor for undergraduate students at “Networking for the Next Generation” at the Society of Toxicology Annual Meeting
  • Organized a volunteer group of Toxicology graduate students for “Pick Up the Parks” in Monroe County, New York